Some books and essays require regular rereading. In the course of our busy lives, we can allow their subtle wisdom to fade into the landscape and lose their initial effect. A work of this kind is easy to spot: It is fresh and sparkling on every subsequent reading; each encounter with it feels like the first.
For me, Albert Jay Nock’s masterly essay “On Doing the Right Thing” is one of those works. (Written in 1924, it is reprinted in the Nock collection The State of the Union: Essays in Social Criticism, edited by Charles H. Hamilton and published by Liberty Fund.) Nock (1870-1945) was an exquisite essayist, individualist, and libertarian, whose book Our Enemy, the State (1935) is just what one needs to change from a youthful enthusiast of freedom to a mature advocate of the free society.
Nock’s essay on the Right Thing is a reminder that the advocates of the paternalistic state, whether “left” or “right,” have it backward: good conduct isn’t a precondition of freedom; it is a consequence of freedom. He contrasts the “region of conduct” regulated by force, that is, by government, with the region regulated by the individual’s sense of doing the Right Thing.
The point is that any enlargement [of the first region], good or bad, reduces the scope of individual responsibility, and thus retards and cripples the education which can be a product of nothing but the free exercise of moral judgment. Like the discipline of the army, again, any such enlargement, good or bad, depraves this education into a mere routine of mechanical assent. The profound instinct against being “done for our own good” . . . is wholly sound. Men are aware of the need of this moral experience as a condition of growth, and they are aware, too, that anything tending to ease it off from them, even for their own good, is to be profoundly distrusted. The practical reason for freedom, then, is that freedom seems to be the only condition under which any kind of substantial moral fibre can be developed. [Emphasis added.]
In other words . . . no, there are no better words.
Making Us Better
Across the political spectrum, social engineers think they need to deprive us of freedom in order to make us moral or in some way better. (Such as thin. See New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s plan to outlaw some sugared drinks larger than 16 ounces in eateries and ballparks.) So they use the law to keep us from discriminating, gambling, eating allegedly fattening foods, taking drugs, smoking in restaurants, abstaining from helping others, leaving our seat belts unbuckled, you name it.
Nock saw through this long ago:
Freedom, for example, as they keep insisting, undoubtedly means freedom to drink oneself to death. The anarchist [that’s what Nock called himself] grants this at once; but at the same time he points out that it also means freedom to say with the gravedigger in Les Misérables, “I have studied, I have graduated; I never drink.” It unquestionably means freedom to go on without any code of morals at all; but it also means freedom to rationalise, construct and adhere to a code of one’s own. The anarchist presses the point invariably overlooked, that freedom to do the one without correlative freedom to do the other is impossible; and that just here comes in the moral education which legalism and authoritarianism, with their denial of freedom, can never furnish.
Of course, some people will choose badly. Nock wasn’t naïve. But rather than wallowing in that fact, he “turns to contemplate those men and women who act responsibly decent, decent by a strong, fine, self-sprung consciousness of the Right Thing, and . . . declares [his] conviction that the future lies with them.”
The Nockian understands that it is not the threat of State action that keeps most people decent. He “does not believe that any considerable proportion of human beings will promptly turn into rogues and adventuresses, sots and strumpets, as soon as they find themselves free to do so; but quite the contrary.”
Here he echoes Thomas Paine in Rights of Man :
Great part of that order which reigns among mankind is not the effect of government. It has its origin in the principles of society and the natural constitution of man. It existed prior to government, and would exist if the formality of government was abolished. The mutual dependence and reciprocal interest which man has upon man, and all the parts of civilised community upon each other, create that great chain of connection which holds it together. The landholder, the farmer, the manufacturer, the merchant, the tradesman, and every occupation, prospers by the aid which each receives from the other, and from the whole. Common interest regulates their concerns, and forms their law; and the laws which common usage ordains, have a greater influence than the laws of government. In fine, society performs for itself almost everything which is ascribed to government.
Nock concluded that the purpose of his advocating freedom was nothing less than “that men may become as good and decent, as elevated and noble, as they might be and really wish to be.”
The lesson of Nock’s essay is that champions of the freedom philosophy need never be silenced by the charge that freedom makes vice possible—for without freedom, there can be no virtue.
Sheldon Richman is editor of The Freeman, where this article originally appeared.